Chapter Nine: Rural Rides
“A-birding on a Broncho” is the title of a charming little book published some years ago, and probably better known to readers on the other side of the Atlantic than in England. I remember reading it with pleasure and pride on account of the author’s name, Florence Merriam, seeing that, on my mother’s side, I am partly a Merriam myself (of the branch on the other side of the Atlantic), and having been informed that all of that rare name are of one family, I took it that we were related, though perhaps very distantly. “A-birding on a Broncho” suggested an equally alliterative title for this chapter—“Birding on a Bike”; but I will leave it to others, for those who go a-birding are now very many and are hard put to find fresh titles to their books. For several reasons it will suit me better to borrow from Cobbett and name this chapter “Rural Rides.”
Sore of us do not go out on bicycles to observe the ways of birds. Indeed, some of our common species have grown almost too familiar with the wheel: it has become a positive danger to them. They not infrequently mistake its rate of speed and injure themselves in attempting to fly across it. Recently I had a thrush knock himself senseless against the spokes of my forewheel, and cycling friends have told me of similar experiences they have had, in some instances the heedless birds getting killed. Chaffinches are like the children in village streets—they will not get out of your way; by and by in rural places the merciful man will have to ring his bell almost incessantly to avoid running over them. As I do not travel at a furious speed I manage to avoid most things, even the wandering loveless oil-beetle and the small rose-beetle and that slow-moving insect tortoise the tumbledung. Two or three seasons ago I was so unfortunate as to run over a large and beautifully bright grass snake near Aldermaston, once a snake sanctuary. He writhed and wriggled on the road as if I had broken his back, but on picking him up I was pleased to find that my wind-inflated rubber tyre had not, like the brazen chariot wheel, crushed his delicate vertebra; he quickly recovered, and when released glided swiftly and easily away into cover. Twice only have I deliberately tried to run down, to tread on coat-tails so to speak, of any wild creature. One was a weasel, the other a stoat, running along at a hedge-side before me. In both instances, just as the front wheel was touching the tail, the little flat-headed rascal swerved quickly aside and escaped.
Even some of the less common and less tame birds care as little for a man on a bicycle as they do for a cow. Not long ago a peewit trotted leisurely across the road not more than ten yards from my front wheel; and on the same day I came upon a green woodpecker enjoying a dust-bath in the public road. He declined to stir until I stopped to watch him, then merely flew about a dozen yards away and attached himself to the trunk of a fir tree at the roadside and waited there for me to go. Never in all my wanderings afoot had I seen a yaffingale dusting himself like a barn-door fowl!